The Noby Noby Boy Litmus Test
According to conventional gamer wisdom, you shouldn't review Street Fighter IV unless you know your way around the fighting genre and are a somewhat accomplished player. You should probably have a Hori Joystick, too. So what kind of prerequisites should one satisfy before tackling Noby Noby Boy, Keita Takahashi's trippy follow-up to Katamari Damacy? Should the critic be open to the psychedelic experience? A student of contemporary Japanese art? The Superflat movement? Perhaps they ought to be high while playing? At the very least the reviewer should be buzzing on cold medicine, right?
Of course, both assertions are stupid. You don't have to have a history with fighting games to play Street Fighter IV and opine on it. All you have to do is play the game, then describe what a blast it was getting your ass handed to you over and over again on Xbox Live. And just the same, you needn't have hung out with Timothy Leary or be a stoned art major to know if you love or hate Noby Noby Boy. You just download the thing, fool around with it, and try to express how it made you feel.
It's looking like more than a few of us are getting fairly negative vibes from the game. Crispy Gamer's own Evan Narcisse just Fried the game in his review. And Kyle Orland, in his Games for Lunch column, determined that an hour in Takahashi's experimental universe was more than enough for him.
Big deal, right? Absolutely. Two critics didn't like the game. No need to stop the presses. But I think there's something going on here. It's nothing dire -- just a little enlightening. I think Noby Noby Boy (and our collective reaction to the game) may be helping to reveal a line that's been long drawn in the sand -- a division between rules and freedom that has informed videogames from the outset and helped to make us who we are.
See, playing Street Fighter IV is an experience steeped in rules. The game is about conforming to a strict series of requirements and mastering them. It's about overcoming obstacles and winning. Noby Noby Boy, on the other hand, is about play in its purest form. It's an undirected experience -- a vibrant sandbox full of bizarre creatures and even stranger interactions. There's not much to do in Noby Noby Boy except interact. Players can stretch Boy, make him eat objects, and eventually grow him large enough to eat nearly anything that he comes across. Boy can jump, hover, and twist. But there are no coins to collect. No princesses to save. Noby Noby Boy is, in a real way, antithetical to everything that makes a videogame a videogame. That's why gamers are circling their wagons around the Street Fighter IV way of thinking -- around the notion that strict play is superior, or at the very least more fun and engrossing, than free-wheeling exploration and experimentation. That's why so many people feel the need to put quotation marks around the word "game" when they talk about Noby Noby Boy.
I'm not going to make value judgments in either direction because I dig both kinds of experiences. I'm a sucker for turn-based tactics and role-playing adventures -- worlds with rigid, often demanding and almost always limiting rules. I'm still playing Fallout 3 and continue to feel a warm, fuzzy feeling every time that cash register rings, signaling the grip of experience I just earned for polishing off a quest or decapitating a pesky Wastelander. But I also dig freeform experiences -- skateboarding in Skate 2's San Vanelona or hopping from rooftop to rooftop in Crackdown's Pacific City. Still, I'm starting to see Noby Noby Boy as a kind of litmus test -- a way of separating gamers who need or crave supervision from the ones who can find their own fun.
On paper Noby Noby Boy may seem worlds apart from Skate 2 and Crackdown. But I think they all live on the same sandbox continuum. Takahashi's game is just way out on the fringes, where the others adhere closer to videogame doctrine. Both Skate 2 and Crackdown at least pretend to have some kind of ladder to climb. But hang around Skate 2 long enough, and you'll inevitably hear someone express the notion that the game doesn't really start until you've gotten all the challenges under your belt. Not because of the tricks you've mastered or Achievements you've racked up, but because only then you are free of goals and free to just skate.
That's the Noby Noby Boy experience in a nutshell. You start at the end. There's nothing in the player's way. You can't fail. Allow Boy's serpentine body to slip off the edge of the world, and it's not, you know, the end of the world. After a moment or two freefalling into oblivion, Boy bursts forth, safe and sound, from the chimney of his house. Should Boy's body accidentally tear in two, there's no punishment meted out. Boy only needs to eat his dangling hindquarters and, after a couple Möbius moments of digestion, he's as good as new.
It's not like the game is totally bereft of goals. Stretching Boy and reporting that length allows Girl (Boy's enormous better half) to extend into outer space. In the game's first week, Girl reached the moon, where a treasure trove of new denizens, objects and terrains were found. Mars is next, and the rest of the solar system lies in the distance. And let's not forget about the game's Trophies. There are 12 such achievements to earn. Most are secret, many possible to accidentally earn. Some encourage players to delve into crannies and discover imaginative Easter eggs, games tucked within the game.
Somehow these rewards, these bits of progression, just aren't enough. They don't compel the way other games do. It's no surprise that they shouldn't. Most games lead us by the nose through tasks. There's always a handy arrow pointing us in the direction we should go, and a big exclamation point over the guy we need to talk to. Noby Noby Boy gives us none of that, just a crazy toy box full of mystery.
When I hop from map to map in Noby Noby Boy, I find myself thrilled by the variety of each seemingly random configuration. One go-round I find myself on green turf strewn with enormous bones and a scattering of boltless nuts. I stumble across a variety of bells. Each makes a different tone when touched. I wonder if I can eat them and poop out a song. On another plane I find myself surrounded by curious pirates and romping dogs. I make Boy eat one of the sailors, then devour a curious St. Bernard. He digests both, the two lumps they create slipping from fore to aft. I clench Boy's hind end and he combines the pair into a single, new organism -- a dog pirate. I proudly upload a video clip of my creation to YouTube.
I continually encounter the strange and novel when I play Noby Noby Boy. Last night I happened upon an eerie place under a starry night sky, populated with skeletons, ghosts and crows. Torches burned cartoon flames. Above it all arched a rainbow. I was reminded of the imagery in director Alejandro Jodorowsky's "Holy Mountain" -- a grotesque but beautiful cult film that, I'll be the first to admit, isn't for everyone. Surely a place like the world that Keita Takahashi has created in Noby Noby Boy is not for everyone, either. I still can't help but be a little bummed that it's not a place for more of us.